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No democratic oversight of the power to wage war

By Max Atkinson - posted Thursday, 27 January 2022

Governments have a right and duty to pursue national interests. But they also have a responsibility to respect community values and the two are often in conflict. When violence is used without just cause they betray these values and shame the nation. This is why, on contentious issues of foreign policy, they will seek to avoid parliamentary scrutiny, often with tragic results.

This is unfortunate because civilisation requires institutions to curb the use of violence. In order to keep the peace, there must be an acceptance that conflicts of interest will be settled by appeal to values, not armed force; hence the importance of international law.

The Greens' bill to amend the Commonwealth War Powers Act was, as expected, rejected by a Senate sub-committee chaired by Senator Eric Abetz. It aimed to restore democracy by requiring parliamentary approval to wage war. In practice, it meant the Senate would have the power to subpoena witnesses to test the factual basis of the argument for war. Without this scrutiny, a government might support a war for party political reasons. It may also be led into war by powerful allies with their own agenda.


The need for reform is therefore obvious. When John Howard and Alexander Downer decided to join the invasion of Iraq they relied on three unproven claims. The first was an assurance from US President George W Bush that Iraq shared responsibility with al Qaeda for the 11 September attack. Secondly, Bush said it possessed WMD and posed an imminent security threat to Australia, the US and UK; thirdly, there was a risk these weapons would get into the hands of terrorists.

Astonishingly, at no time did Howard ask for or receive US raw intelligence on these claims. This made it impossible for Australian intelligence services to assess their reliability or warn Howard they might not be reliable. Andrew Wilkie, a senior Iraq intelligence analyst resigned, at considerable personal cost, to go public. He was vindicated years later when the Parliamentary Inquiry, with the further testimony of Margaret Swieringa, Secretary to the Cabinet Defence Committee, published its findings in April 2013.

It concluded that the "case made by the government was that Iraq possessed WMD in large quantities and posed a grave and unacceptable threat to the region and the world, particularly as there was a danger that Iraq's WMD might be passed to terrorist organisations…This is not the picture that emerges from an examination of all the assessments provided to the Committee by Australia's two analytical agencies."

This finding was confirmed by the UK Chilcot inquiry which, after a seven-year investigation, reported on 6 July 2016. Its executive summary was a scathing indictment of willful misrepresentation by the American, British, and Australian leaders, all anxious to appease the US President, who had warned all nations they would pay a heavy price if they did not support the invasion.

This threat, together with false statements by the White House, US Secretary of State Colin Powell (for which he later expressed regret) and the British Prime Minister, were instrumental in Australia joining a war that killed between one hundred and fifty thousand and one million Iraqis. It left countless numbers wounded and crippled and destroyed Iraq's infrastructure and economy. It is now widely agreed to have lacked justification in law or morality.

The leaders were under pressure because Bush warned nations they were either for or against the US - there was no middle ground, and that he had now "taken the gloves off". Many prominent US critics saw the war as an attempt to regain control of Middle-East oil supplies while others pointed to Bush's 2004 re-election problems after the disastrous intelligence failures leading up to 9:11. Others looked for an explanation in his character and psychological make-up.


However that may be John Howard, in his 700-word autobiography Lazarus Rising (2nd edition 2011), devotes 38 pages to justify the Iraq War and insists he has not changed his views. After the Chilcot inquiry released its long-awaited report both he and Downer reaffirmed their support for the war. Paradoxically, Howard's self-serving account itself highlights the need for reform; it shows how easy it is, in the fog, stress and disorienting drama of war, to lose sight of the lives lost and the human suffering. This explains his failure, shared by the US and UK leaders, to consider the likely or actual Iraqi casualties - there is not a word in the text or in the extensive index at the end of the book. How we should ask, can one justify an armed invasion of another nation without weighing the supposed benefits against the appalling human cost?

The US, however, had given up the Vietnam policy of measuring success in the struggle against communism in Asia by body counts. This would also lessen the risk of a domestic backlash arising from the sheer savagery of the Iraq war, in which the US used napalm, white phosphorous, depleted uranium and industrial bulldozers to bury alive thousands of Iraqi conscripts over hundreds of kilometres of trenches.

Howard's account ignores these consequences just as it ignores the possibility he may have been wrong to rely on the honesty and competence of Bush and those who advised the US leader. His thinking at the time is recounted in an interview he arranged with prominent pro-war journalist Janet Albrechtsen. This was broadcast on 14 September 2014 on the Seven Network:

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A version of this article was first published in the Tasmanian Times.

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About the Author

Max Atkinson is a former senior lecturer of the Law School, University of Tasmania, with Interests in legal and moral philosophy, especially issues to do with rights, values, justice and punishment. He is an occasional contributor to the Tasmanian Times.

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